Skip the jargon

Ease it up for Indians to do business in India Messieurs in New DelhiPTI
Voices Wednesday, November 02, 2016 - 14:45

Every so many years, India’s kluck-kluck crowd marries a new word generally imported from another kingdom. At the turn of this century it was jugaad, a WRI (word returned to India) via foreign shores. Books, seminars, round-table discussions et al were dedicated to this 'find'.

What was a capacity to fix a lamp or bicycle was suddenly the mantra for fixing an economy India’s size because a business school of repute was struck by the word. Then came amazing. Buying vegetables was amazing and sharpening a pencil was awesome.

Now we are stuck with a contraption named disruption. We are all running around to meetings and conferences that 'disrupt'.

In a country where getting to work and back is a daily disruption and where power failures are common, how stupid is it to go to a conference to discuss disruption?

That disruption and the Fourth Industrial Revolution are about robots taking over jobs done by humans. I recently ready a study which said more than half of those jobs do not exist today.  In other words, there is no job description and no, an office assistant will not be called a stationary engineer then. 

Innovation is the other door opener now. Supposedly. It is as if you can get up in the morning and tell yourself - hmm, what innovation can I do today?

Barring a few segments, Indians are risk-averse by nature - we are a people who would rather follow than lead.

Having the brain power is only part of the process of innovation. More importantly, ideas have to be nurtured and allowed to thrive in an atmosphere that respects risks.

Innovation cannot be taught, no more than taking a risk can be. It is a lived, lost and lived again experience and neither can be captured in that famous one-pager or the mother of all new jargons - boot camp. Here's why. 

The News Minute (TNM) regularly brings stories from South India about enterprise and risk. One such recent series called Journeys of Triumph profiled three human beings all of whom started with a few rupees in their pockets, a prayer on their lips, a passion for service and a thirst to succeed.

One, who started as a sweeper in a restaurant in Hyderabad, now owns it.  In addition, he has a free meal service outside a hospital in the city, ensures that priests at a nearby temple get a salary and relatives are helped to take their dead back home with dignity. Remember that photograph from Odisha where a man was carrying his dead wife on his head as their daughter walked alongside weeping? 

The other is a fruits and vegetable vendor who used to hawk his produce on the streets of Tamil Nadu and now owns a fruit and vegetable chain across Tamil Nadu. His brand is now associated with values of good products at the right price (value). When not in season, he imports his products.

The third story is that of a young boy who lived in a leaky house with his father and sisters and it was a hand to mouth existence. He sold sweets five paisa a pop to add to the family’s kitty. Today the family has a chain of companies in four cities in South India selling idly batter. All are running businesses worth several hundred crores. (Read their inspirational stories here.)

Babu Rao who now owns the Niloufer Café in Hyderabad, Musthafa the child who sold sweets for 5 paisa a pop and R. Natarajan, founder of Kovai Pazhamudir Nilayam are leaders in the true sense of the word. You may say they were lucky, but luck is the opportunity you are ready for, with hard work, with a never-say-die attitude.

You will not meet these people – and others like them – at conferences or meetings where mentors and trainers are at work. The streets of India are their mentors, and they train on the job. Hold this thought for a moment.

Between September and March, the world vomits numbers, some regurgitated from the past and others added on from a single data point onto newsrooms, policy houses and think tanks. Numbers are moody (pun intended) and a rookie economist will tell you how numbers can be crunched any which way according to political or other dispensations.

One such appreciation of India’s Ease of Doing Business has not brought glad tidings. This is where we hit jargon. '...A lot has been achieved but much more needs to be done...' goes one line. What does that really mean? Which is the lot and where is the rest? 

New Delhi was hoping to be among the top 50 countries in a World Bank assessment but that must wait. India brings up the rear when compared to BRICS and is trailing Lebanon, Nicaragua, Tajikistan and Cape Verde when it comes to the facilities for doing business.

India ticks yes in five out of the ten boxes when it comes to pain points – getting credit, protecting minority investors, starting a business, resolving insolvency and dealing with permits including construction permits. If getting a permit for electricity is added to this, then India slips out of sight.

If you believe as I do that the Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) are the backbone of economies (Switzerland, Germany for example), the first thing an entrepreneur looks for is the cost of borrowing money and secondly the speed of completing documentation which will have a direct impact on getting the product to the market. With the best of intentions and access, this can take anywhere between one to six months for a company that employs between two to five people. That is very expensive, all costs factored in. 

So how is it that the three stories I mentioned in this piece are so successful? What can we learn from them? Can they become leaders in their communities and teach us – the mentors and trainers – a lesson or two?

I believe they can. Time to learn some humility, respect and work ethics - there is no free lunch. Everybody cannot be a CEO and not all Indians in America are CEOs.

For every Bill Gates we hear of, hundreds have not made it for a host of reasons. But those who have, have one thing in common and that is called focus. Focus, focus, focus and stay the course.

Let us skip fancy titles and fancier settings which most of us can ill afford and get real about what India needs and what we can do. While it is important to get Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and Foreign Institutional Investors (FII), it is equally if not more important to help the Natarajans and the Musthafa’s in waiting, to secure credit at affordable rates and make their paths to success less cumbersome.

They are also CEOs to be celebrated with as much pride as we do Indians who lead companies abroad. In fact, let us not compare. Everybody’s success story is one to be shared. However, I do think that if you can make a success of a business in India, you have passed out of the best school in the world.

It is time the messieurs and the mesdames in Delhi celebrate India's business leaders other than the usual suspects. 

Note: These are the personal views of the author.

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